“Marriages of convenience”

Often contracted to evade immigration law, “marriages of convenience” have become an increasingly common method by which immigrants have obtained permanent resident status in the United States. Because marriage is a basic social institution, U.S. immigration policy has been designed to keep married people together. Immigrants traveling to the United States have been encouraged to bring their spouses. Other immigrants, however, have found a route to permanent residence and even citizenship through marriages of convenience.

The concept of “marriages of convenience” has given rise to terms such as “sham marriages,” “fraudulent marriages,” and “green card marriages.” In the context of immigration law, all these terms pertain to essentially the same thing: marriages undertaken for the purpose of circumventing legal requirement for obtaining permanent residency status. It should also be understood that such marriages differ from marriages to so-called Mail-order brides[mail order brides]mail-order brides. Although women may enter the latter type of marriage for the purpose of immigrating the United States, they do so in the knowledge that their American husbands are seeking permanent marriage partners.“Marriages of convenience”[Marriages of convenience]“Marriages of convenience”[Marriages of convenience][cat]FAMILY ISSUES;”Marriages of convenience”[03410][cat]ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION;”Marriages of convenience”[03410]

Since the mid-twentieth century, U.S. immigration policy has actively championed marriage and family unification as vital to a stable society. However, marriages are not always undertaken to unite couples who are deeply in love and committed to sharing their lives together. In many societies, families join couples together in arranged marriages, promoting unions between people who may not even know each other in advance, but they do not do this to skirt immigration policies. In contrast, marriages of convenience do exactly that.

One of the easiest ways to become a naturalized American citizen has been to marry a citizen to avoid major immigration difficulties. The immigrant spouses do not need to wait for visa numbers or even need labor certificates. Marriage to an American citizen automatically makes an alien eligible for the legal status of a Permanent resident status;and marriage[marriage]permanent resident. During the 1980’s, the numbers of immigrants who entered the United States after marrying American citizens rose from 87,221 in 1981 to 124,093 in 1985, and 140,000 in 1986. However, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) estimated that 30 percent these immigrants’ marriages were fraudulent. In many cases, the American citizens were knowing parties to sham marriages. In others, however, they entered their marriages in good faith only to learn later that they were not the true objects of their immigrant spouses’ affection, but instead merely their spouses’ means to permanent residency status, one step away from full citizenship.

Arranging sham marriages, which costs an immigrant from two hundred to five thousand dollars, has become a business. In August, 1986, the INS deported the head of a West Coast company that had arranged seventy sham marriages after charging immigrants from three to five thousand dollars for each wedding. Single mothers were particular targets of immigrant seeking “green card marriages.”

Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments of 1986<index-term><primary>[a]Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments of 1986</primary></index-term>

Concerned about the increasing numbers of aliens receiving permanent residency status through marriage and convinced that more than one-third of such marriages were fraudulent, Congress enacted the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments (IMFA) on November 10, 1986. This law created a two-year “conditional” permanent residency status for immigrants marrying American citizens. During the ninety days leading up the end of the two-year period, couples were required to submit joint petitions for permanent legal status. So couples could prove their marriages were still valid, INS officials were authorized to make home visits. To verify that couples were living as man and wife, officials interviewed apartment managers, employers, friends, and neighbors. They also interviewed the spouses themselves–separately–asking questions about their weddings, division of household chores, home furnishings and decor, and other matters to see whether the couples were cohabiting. Although instructed not to do, some INS officials have asked intimate questions about the couples’ relationships. These interviews have led to a number of law suits about invasion of privacy. When investigators determine that a marriage is fraudulent, they may rescind the immigrant partner’s permanent resident status or citizenship,
order the immigrant’s Deportation;and marriage fraud[marriage fraud]deportation, or even instigate criminal proceedings against both spouses.

Marriage Fraud in the Media

The magnitude of the sham-marriage problem was so great during the 1980’s that television’s Nightline program broadcast a special on the subject in August, 1985. The program featured an interview with Senator Alan Simpson, the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Immigration. Sham marriages have also been treated lightly in the media. The 1990 film Green Card (film)Green Card is a romantic story about an American woman and a French man entering a completely fraudulent marriage for different purposes. The woman needs to be married to lease the apartment of her dreams; the Frenchman needs to marry a citizen so he can gain permanent resident status. The couple’s efforts to fool INS officials become the subject of levity. A story line for a 2009 episode of the popular television series Desperate Housewives included a scheme for “green card marriage.”

Although marriages of convenience may be treated humorously in fiction, the reality has been less than comic. The sham-marriage business has continued to thrive into the twenty-first century, arranging marriages for immigrants for hefty fees and coaching couples on how to respond to official immigration investigations. The news media are filled stories about marriage-fraud rings. Immigrants seeking marriages and the “green cards” come from all over the world. With many aliens willing to pay thousands of dollars for marriages, American citizens in desperate need of money may find sham marriages tempting.

After September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks;and sham marriages[sham marriages]the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the issue of sham marriages took on another aspect: Fully one-half of thirty-six foreign-born suspected terrorists who were in the United States from the early 1990’s to 2004 gained their legal resident status by marrying Americans. Consequently, government agencies began stepping up efforts to uncover sham marriages. In 2008, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, U.S.U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents rounded up three dozen suspects in Operation Knot So FastOperation Knot So Fast. Government efforts to curtail marriage fraud has continued, but marriage has remained a major route to immigration into the United States.“Marriages of convenience”[Marriages of convenience]

Further Reading

  • Chau-Eoan, Howard G. “Tightening the Knot.” Time, December 15, 1986, 35. Brief discussion of how the Immigration Marriage Fraud Amendments of 1986 were expected to be tougher on marriage fraud.
  • Farrell, Mary H. J. “For Immigrants Trying to Obtain the Coveted Green Card, Marriage May Be a Treacherous Strategy.” People Weekly, February 25, 1991, 93-96. Story that includes examples of green card marriages.
  • Glasser, Jeff. “The Benefits of Marriage.” U.S. News & World Report, April 2, 2001, 18. Article showing how a new law may actually promote marriage fraud.
  • Lopez, Elena Maria. “Marriage Fraud.” USA Today, April 7, 2006, p. 13A. Discusses the ease, through marriage, of getting permanent access to the United States.
  • Pear, Robert. “In Bureaucracy, Aliens Find Another Unprotected Border.” The New York Times, October 19, 1986. Statistics show the increase in marriages as a way to enter the United States.


Citizenship and Immigration Services, U.S.

Green Card

Green cards

Immigration and Naturalization Service, U.S.

Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986



Permanent resident status